NATO ambassadors met on Wednesday to consider a Turkish request for the deployment of Patriot missiles near its border with Syria as the conflict in its southern neighbour deepens.
The move highlights Ankara’s fears that the situation on its border could deteriorate rapidly and echoes its calls for military support during the two Gulf wars, when NATO deployed surface-to-air missiles on its soil in 1991 and 2003.
Turkey formally made the request after weeks of talks with NATO allies about how to shore up security on its 900-kilometre border. It has repeatedly scrambled fighter jets along the frontier and responded in kind to stray Syrian shells flying into its territory.
The head of NATO said the alliance would discuss the request “without delay.” Ambassadors from the 28 NATO members convened a meeting at the military alliance’s Brussels headquarters.
“Such a deployment would augment Turkey’s air-defence capabilities to defend the population and territory of Turkey,” Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. “It would contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along NATO’s southeastern border.”
Turkey is reluctant to be drawn into a regional conflict but the proximity to its border of bombing raids is testing its pledge to defend itself. It has found itself increasingly isolated and frustrated by a lack of international action.
A major player in supporting Syria’s opposition and planning for the post-conflict era, Turkey is worried about Syria’s chemical weapons, the refugee crisis along its border and what it says is Syrian support for Kurdish militants on its own soil.
Concerns in Ankara deepened last week with an air assault by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad on the rebel-held frontier town of Ras al-Ain, which triggered some of the biggest refugee movements since the 20-month-old conflict began.
More than 120,000 Syrian refugees are sheltering in camps in southern Turkey, and with winter setting in and millions of people estimated to be short of food inside Syria, there are concerns many more will pour in.
Turkey has led calls for a buffer zone to be set up inside Syria where refugees could be safely sheltered, a move that would have to be policed by foreign air power to be credible, but the idea has gained little international traction.